• Andrea Lillo

Merchants see greater BTS learning curve

New York — Home specialty retailers pointed the way, now broadline merchants and department stores are putting more energy into leveraging their domestics departments during the Back-to-School season.

While their programs may not be as fully developed as those at Linens 'n Things and Bed Bath & Beyond — both of which added college registries this season — other retailers believe that the pursuing the season in home is a good strategy.

"It's a learning process," Charlie Chinni, executive vp, gmm, home, fine jewelry and family footwear, JCPenney, said the retailer's program is "not a highly developed business."

However, "the Back-to-School business deserves attention — it provides for top-line growth. The specialty stores do a good job of that," Chinni added.

Back-to-School at JCPenney this year centers on its Bigger line of oversized sheets, towels and comforters. Other BTS items are merchandised by classification.

Steve Jebbia, vp, dmm, bed and bath, added that categories such as flannel, fleece and down have done well because they arrived earlier than usual this season.

Stores were being set up mid-July, Chinni said. However, Penney began its first marketing event a week later this year because statistics showed that the company was not getting any benefit by starting earlier. In August, BTS becomes part of Penney's semi-annual home event.

Core requirements
Kmart's Back-to-School season focuses again on Joe Boxer, though this year's collection has grown larger, the company said. After launching a small Joe Boxer home assortment last year, Kmart introduced a year-round bedding program in May, and now the new BTS items are rolling out.

Four brightly colored Joe Boxer bedding collections will bow. A bed-in-a-bag (or Snooze Kit) will retail for $39.99 in twin, $49.99 in full, and $59.99 in queen; coordinating rugs and pillows will run $12.99 each.

At ShopKo, Back-to-Campus, layered within its Back-to-School strategy, is being beefed up this year. "Coming out of last year's school time frame, we quickly assessed that we had missed an opportunity in Back-to-Campus relative to the competition," said Doug Wurl, senior vp, gmm, hard lines and home, ShopKo.

This year, ShopKo converted its entire home store into a Back-to-Campus store, since its basic assortments can be thought of as Back-to-Campus. In addition, ShopKo has merchandised key item drivers in bedding, towels, small appliances, dishes and storage that "will differentiate us from the competition."

Extra credit
In addition, ShopKo installed two Back-to-Campus arcades in the main aisles stocked with key items such as mattress pads, pillows and dorm rugs.

"Everything ties together in a continuous strategy so the customer gets it," he added. "It's all part of our effort to leverage this time frame to maximize the Back-to-Campus business."

At Mervyn's, the Back-to-School season includes the launch of a bedding and related accessories brand called Loft Style.With retails ranging from $79.00 to $139.00, the collection includes bedding, decorative pillows, mosquito net canopies and window treatments. Coordinating accessories will range from $19.99 to $27.99.

Until September, Mervyn's home area will have a Back-to-School shop highlighting both soft and hard home.

Other BTS brands include the Martex Modern Living line, in eight solid colors and six patterns, and Dockers Home sheets, in twin extra long sizes and three check/ plaid patterns, with a coordinating denim comforter cover, plaid and khaki comforter set.

Formal schooling
Back-to-School will be more formalized at regional department store Gottschalks. "We're going to go after it more this year," said Tom Fraser, dmm, textiles. "We're going to do a better job of it."

The retailer had an earlier start this year, he added, and it will position the soft and hard home items in one area.

"We will run an increase, but not a gigantic increase," because of its more organized stance this season, which will run through Labor Day, he said.

And although it already carries twin extra long sheets year round, Gottschalks made some special purchases and bought more than it did a year ago, Fraser added. The drivers of the business are sheets, some comforters and a touch of designer items such as Tommy Hilfiger.

Boscov's has put more effort into its BTS season as well, with more advertising, a new evening event, and more domestics. "We're trying to reach someone that typically wouldn't go to a department store as a first step," said Bart Litvin, svp, gmm. Advertising has also stepped up, with a heavy push into radio — a first — as well as direct mail and local publicity.

History lesson
"The big question is: When is the Back-to-School season? Our history tells us it starts in the middle of July, which is a little incongruous with Ready to Wear," said Litvin.

Bloomingdale's is telling a more upscale version of Back-to-School this year, introducing its first push into the category in the home department. "It's a very small business for us, but our competitors spend a lot of money on it," said Lester Gribetz, vp, home fashion.

"People understand that you need more than just sheets to take to college or boarding school," Gribetz added. "There's nothing here that is more than $100, and for $300 to $400 you can outfit a whole bed."

A two-bed concept shop in Bloomingdale's home department here includes three Ralph Lauren Polo top of bed patterns, Lauren towels, and Bloomingdale's at Home solid-color sets cross-merchandised with bath sets and housewares.

While department stores and others look to emulate specialty stores' success in using home as a BTS driver, the specialists are also feeling the effects of stepped-up competition.

"The Back-to-School business has become a fragment of business with increased competition in various channels," Linens 'n Things' cfo William Giles remarked last week during the company's quarterly conference call.

"Focusing on our core strengths, we are building upon on our Back-to-School assortments with more color and styling, accentuating the functional side of the business while still offering great value."

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